There are many physical factors that contribute to a hurdler’s success, the primary ones being speed, power, endurance, flexibility, height, and quickness. While speed is arguably the most significant factor, it is also true that, over the years, the best hurdlers have not necessarily been the best sprinters. Currently, among the top 110m hurdlers in the world, only Terrence Trammell of the USA would be considered a world-class sprinter. It is also a common belief that the more powerful hurdlers have an advantage over the others. This point is often true, as demonstrated by the success of France’s Ladji Doucoure, who despite, relatively poor technique, won the 110m World Championship final in 2005 and finished the year ranked #1 in the world. Names such as Duane Ross and Roger Kingdom also come to mind as being hurdlers who were very successful employing a power-based style. As for height, taller hurdlers are at an advantage because they can look down on the hurdles and more easily step over them without needing as much speed or flexibility as most other hurdlers, but taller hurdlers are also at a disadvantage because of the difficulty of fitting in their three steps between the hurdles without getting over-crowded. In the 110’s, there have only been a handful of elite hurdlers over 6’2″. Greg Foster and Tonie Campbell are the most obvious names that come to mind, and Foster is known for always having had trouble with getting jammed. So, of all the factors that contribute to successful hurdling, is there any one factor that stands out over all the others? Not really, but in this article, I will make the case that quickness, in all its forms, is an under-appreciated quality that all hurdlers must possess, and that, all things being equal, just may be the most important factor of them all.
One of the observations that I’ve recently made is that everything in hurdling requires the need to have quick reflexes. From the first step out of the blocks to the dive at the finish line, a hurdle race consists of a series of reflex actions that ultimately create the rhythmic dance that hurdling truly is when done effectively. Getting out of the blocks – getting that first step on the track – is a reflex action. Getting the lead leg knee up, driving the lead leg foot down, driving the trail leg knee up, are all reflex actions. Pulling the trail arm back to the hip and punching it back up are both reflex actions. Opening the window of the lead arm and closing it on the way down are reflex actions. The three steps between the hurdles are all reflex actions. Everything in hurdling is a matter of quickness, not speed, because there’s not enough room between the hurdles to really be “fast” in hurdling. So, running fast times is a matter of being able to instinctively make all those quick reflex actions as you roll down the track. Then, the reason that flexibility and specific muscle strength become important is because they enable you to maintain your quickness when you get tired. I always say to my athletes, “force yourself to be quick.” In other words, get on top of the hurdles, get yourself crowded, so that you have no choice but to use your reflexes to get over the hurdle without crashing into it. Then, once you trust your ability to react instinctively and to make those super-quick reflex actions in the heat of the battle, that’s when you’re really hurdling. You won’t need your coach to inform you that you’re hurdling well. The exhilaration you’ll feel will inform you of that fact.
The hurdles are a rhythmic event. The race doesn’t go to the swiftest, but to the one who can best fit his swiftness between the hurdles. There is way too much emphasis on speed and power these days, which is carrying over from an overall over-emphasis on these two qualities in the sprint events, and also in other sports, such as football, soccer, etc. In hurdling, quickness improves your ability to be powerful. If your trail leg is slow, for instance, and it lags behind your lead leg, then you won’t be in a power position when you touch down. You’ll have to spend time correcting yourself, regaining your balance and forward alignment, when you touch down, instead of being able to instantly sprint toward the next barrier. Even good technique is no good unless the movements of hurdle clearance are made quickly, with the reflexes highly alert and active. That’s why many “pretty” hurdlers don’t cross the finish line in first place– their technique is lovely to look at, but it’s slow.
With all that being said, I also acknowledge that, for the younger hurdler who is still struggling to three-step comfortably, the development of speed and power is essential before the quickness factor can really kick in. Simply put, you cannot be quick between the hurdles if you’re having trouble reaching the hurdles. Too many quick-step drills for a hurdler who is having trouble three-stepping can definitely prove to be detrimental, as the quicker, shorter steps become too internalized before the three-step rhythm has been established at full speed. But for those for whom three-stepping is not an issue, developing quickness is essential for maximizing their potential.
You can work on improving your quickness by doing various hurdle drills, plyometric drills, etc., but you should also look for opportunities in your daily life to work on improving your reflexes. Because it all carries over. When you adopt the mindset that you have to be quick, your quickness will improve. That game where you throw something in the air and then see how many times you can clap before catching it on its downward flight – play that game all the time. That game where you put your open palms face down on a friend’s open palms, and try to move your hands away before he slaps them – play that game all the time. How about that basketball drill where you see how many times you can touch the bottom of the backboard in one minute – that’s a good one, and you can do it in your room, using the ceiling or a spot on the wall in place of the backboard.
Ultimately, the hurdles are a rhythmic event, not a speed event. Hurdlers are dancers, not linebackers. Because there are so many similarities between the sprints and the hurdles, many athletes and coaches erronenously lump them together in the same category. When sprinting with no barriers to negotiate, with no limits imposed upon your stride length, no concerns about air time to deal with, no balance issues to deal with, sprinters can afford to place a primary emphasis on speed and power. Hurdlers cannot.
© 2006 Steve McGill